For the good of their party and for the good of the republic, Republicans must genuinely reach out to and successfully attract black voters.
The GOP is not off to a good start. In South Carolina, where blacks make up 28 percent of voters, so few blacks voted in the 2012 GOP primary that it was statistically impossible to find among them a preference for any of the party’s candidates.
Rand Paul and other Republicans have made awkward attempts at appealing to African-Americans — so awkward it sometimes seems their intended audience is not the people sitting in front of them. Speeches by white Republicans at historically black schools and in Detroit have had the whiff of slightly smarmy non sequiturs. "Dontcha know? Republicans were abolitionists 150 years ago."
There are some obvious alterations the GOP and the conservative movement must make to attract black voters. Any project that looks like anti-black voter suppression should be first on the list to go. The Randian rhetoric of "takers" must go too. It not only alienates parts of the existing GOP base, but is pungent with contempt for those, like African-Americans, who view themselves as unfairly held outside and below the sphere of social concern. Perhaps most difficult of all, conservatives need to bring their well-paid yappers to heel, lest they find another case like Trayvon Martin's death and use it to enflame a totally spurious debate about "the real racists." Such arguments make conservatives look like self-involved idiots and aggrieved monsters.
But none of those will matter if the GOP and its conservative wing don't make another more crucial revision to their rhetoric and ideology. Conservatives in the GOP like to assail identity politics and tout their own ideology as one of color blindness. Sometimes this is stupidly marketed to black voters as a selling point for Republicans. "We don't categorize you by race," brags a Republican. The black audience hears: "We don't take the most salient part of your American political identity seriously."
Color blindness as an ideology may be well-intentioned, a gesture toward fairness and egalitarianism. But it is the kind of feel-goodery that only people privileged and racially unconscious enough to feel like a "default American" can manage to believe.
I've argued elsewhere that the experience of enslavement stripped African-Americans of their religions, their ethnicities, their languages, and their nationality. Therefore, African-Americans more than any other group have had their identity shaped by the history and politics of the United States: Slavery, emancipation, apartheid in the form of Jim Crow, industrialization, and the civil rights movement.
Anyone who would claim to represent black interests in our politics must be acutely conscious of history, not just anxious about some pure American ideal. In American history, "black freedom" has always been a separate project from the capital-F "Freedom" in which conservatives believe our republic was conceived. In a country that has historically made the color of a black man’s skin the most important fact that determines the expanse of his political rights and his social place, it is insulting to say, "From now on, our social compact depends on pretending your skin color doesn't matter." In fact, it does matter to him, hour to hour, street by street, every night out, in nearly every social encounter. It matters in the voting booth, too.
Lectures about anti-slavery Republicanism in the 1860s are fine, but the way to win black voters now is to actually be solicitous of their interests today. Where do they align with a center-right coalition? Conservatives are wise to rethink the tough-on-crime policies that imprison so many nonviolent offenders, depriving communities of their young men and black families of their fathers. They should take things like Mike Lee’s middle-class-family-friendly tax code revision and push them further so that they help poorer Americans form families too. Republicans might consider the reform of social programs that promise resources to African-Americans only so long as they do acrobatics through administrative hoops. Find a libertarian angle against that racially tinged paternalism. Most important, go out and consult black voters, constantly and respectfully.
Why do this? First because it's just the right thing to do; black Americans deserve more competition for their vote than they are getting. Secondly, in the America that is being shaped by a new great wave of immigration, black Americans stand to lose even their precarious place in the American polity, to be kicked down to the bottom of an even more racially stratified society. Conservatism provides a natural vocabulary and political direction for communities that feel like they are losing their place. Thirdly, the GOP desperately needs to win votes in cities where the party is practically absent. And improving its margin among blacks in the South will do a lot to keep those states solidly red. Reaching out to the nation's most-churched group, and one that is desperate for more political representation, just makes sense for the center-right party in America. Fourth, because politics in mass democracies can turn toward tribalism, a GOP that is increasingly white, elderly, and losing will just become an uglier, more resentful, and unpleasant coalition.
Barring a catastrophic and unthinkable crackup of the Democratic coalition, the GOP will not capture the majority of the black vote anytime soon. African-Americans are justly proud that their country elected Barack Obama, and it's impossible to criticize their loyalty to the party that nominated him. At the same time, I've found that there is real disappointment that Obama's election did not deliver on the hopes it inspired. It's time for America's center-right party to not only covet the support of African-Americans, but to really work for it.